Social Workers are Not Learned Professionals for FLSA Exemption Purposes

No new Law in the Brief post today, instead I am going to talk about something related to my Draw the Law from last week.  The post on Paying Employees was very timely given the ruling that the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals issued last week Friday.

FLSA Exemption: The Learned Professional

Recall that I discussed the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), which has to do deal with payment of wages, overtime, and exemptions to those situations.  Under the Act, remember that certain types of employees are exempt from the requirements.  For example, if you truly are an executive your employer need not pay at the minimum wage rate or pay at the overtime rate because your status is exempted from the FLSA.

Learned professionals are also exempted like executives. Typically, doctors, lawyers, teachers, nurses, scientists, writers and artists are considered “Learned Professionals.

To qualify for the Learned Professional employee exemption, all of the following tests must be met:

  • The employee must be compensated on a salary or fee basis (as defined in the regulations) at a rate not less than $455 per week;
  • The employee’s primary duty must be the performance of work requiring advanced knowledge, defined as work which is predominantly intellectual in character and which includes work requiring the consistent exercise of discretion and judgment;
  • The advanced knowledge must be in a field of science or learning; and
  • The advanced knowledge must be customarily acquired by a prolonged course of specialized intellectual instruction.

Source: DOL’s website.

The Case: Solis v. Washington

Why do I bring this all up?  Well, on the same day as Draw the Law, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals (which Hawaii falls under) issued its decision in Solis v. Washington.

In this case the U.S. Secretary of the Department of Labor (DOL) sued State of Washington’s Department of Social and Human Services (DSHS).  Remember, how I talked about that the DOL has enforcement powers?  Well, they can use those enforcement powers in a suit against a state agency as well. The DOL felt that DSHS was wrongly categorizing its social workers as Learned Professionals, thus exempting having to follow the FLSA pay requirements.

However, DSHS contended that their social workers job requirements met the 4th criteria of advanced knowledge must be customarily acquired by prolonged course of specialized intellectual instruction.  The US District Court agreed with the State of Washington, but the DOL appealed and the 9th Court of Appeals reversed this ruling.

B.A. in ANY Field Not the Same as a Degree in a SPECIFIC Discipline

The decision to side with the DOL for the 9th Circuit really turned on the fact that the social worker positions required only a degree in ANY one of several diverse academic disciplines or sufficient coursework in ANY of those disciplines.  The position requirement was not contingent upon a degree in a SPECIFIC discipline.

To fall under the exemption for Learned Professional, the position in question really needs to require a degree in a specialized course of study it must be sufficiently specialized and relate directly to the position.  Therefore, when the education requirement is satisfied by degrees in diverse fields, such as anthropology, education, and criminal justice, but does not call for a course in specialized intellectual instruction.   Even more problematic for DSHS was that they casted an even wider net for the position, by accepting applicants with other degrees so long as they have sufficient coursework in any of those fields.

To read the whole opinion click on: Solis v. Washington.


What you should takeaway from this case, if you are an employer:

  1. DOL enforces the FLSA and takes seriously the use of the exemption (even in the case of state agencies);
  2. Learned Professional is an exemption that can only be claimed if the job requirements are highly specialized and specific;
  3. A higher learning of education is not enough to satisfy the 4th criteria of the Learned Professional requirements;
  4. A specialized and directly related coursework requirement does satisfy the requirement.

Lastly, for employers, whether they be state agencies or business entities, need to take seriously the posting and hiring based on job requirements if they are going to claim an exemption from the FLSA.  Recall that FLSA also exempts executives, administrators, computer employees, outside salespeople, and other industry-specific workers.  You should seek professional or expert advice when designing job requirements if you expect to exempt that position from standard FLSA pay provisions.

If you liked this post or any of my other series please “Subscribe” to this blawg to receive e-mail updates.  In addition, follow me on Twitter and “Like” me on Facebook.  If you need to contact me directly, please e-mail me at Ryankhew@hawaiiesquire.com.

*Disclaimer:  This post discusses general legal issues, but does not constitute legal advice in any respect.  No reader should act or refrain from acting based on information contained herein without seeking the advice of counsel in the relevant jurisdiction.  Ryan K. Hew, Attorney At Law, LLLC expressly disclaims all liability in respect to any actions taken or not taken based on the contents of this post.

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